I was ten, back when I spent enough time in the sun to turn a deep, golden brown.That summer I had a Minnie Mouse
swimsuit.It was red with white polka
dots that the sun’s rays could penetrate, so I had a silver dollar-sized polka
dot tan under my suit.
My parents borrowed my
uncle’s boat and took my brother and me to visit our neighbors, who were also
borrowing a boat and a house from a relative.
My mother pulled my hair back in a ponytail to keep my scalp from
getting sunburned, snapped my American Lifeguard Association certified foam
rubber life vest into place, and tugged tight the adjustable straps around my
rib cage. I despised the thing, but if I
wanted to swim without adult supervision, I had to wear it.
My neighbor’s daughter, an
only child, is three years younger than I am.
As children, I took it upon myself to act as a big sister to her. So it was that, while I was teaching her how
to do tricks off the boat dock, I nearly drowned.
I did a pencil – into the
water pointed feet first, arms overhead, and hands overlapped as if to
dive. I went deep, and the water forced
the vest up so that my arms were pinned against the sides of my head. When the vest did its job of bringing me to the
surface, my eyes weren’t even above water.
I think I managed to rock enough to scream once before I swallowed as
much lake water as my stomach could hold.
I kicked and wiggled until I made it to the dock ladder only to realize
that my legs were too deep to get a foot on a rung, and my hands were useless,
as they were still sticking straight up.
Then, I ran out of air.
I felt hands grab my wrists
and pull me out of the water so that I floated through the air and land
nimbly on my feet. The vest was off, and
my neighbor’s father pounded me on the back as I heaved and vomited lake water
all over the dock. I shook violently and
then burst into tears as my terrified mother came sprinting down the gangway
“Don’t ever make me wear that
again!” I screamed at her.
For eight months after that,
I suffered through expelling all the parasites I swallowed and their
cysts. The funny thing is, the lake in
Gonzoland is one of the ten cleanest lakes in the whole country.
years later, we were back on the lake, in a pontoon boat this time, and my
brother was kneeboarding. Like any
competitive sibling, I wanted to as well, but my puny little girly arms weren’t
strong enough for me to haul my disproportionately long legs out of the water,
adjust the strap, and Velcro it while holding the rope. I was also terrified of losing the rope and
being unable to get my knees unstrapped.
In an attempt to be sweet
and dig himself out of whatever hole he’d dug to get grounded, my brother
devised a way to affix me to the board. Wearing
the life vest of doom, I hunkered down, leapfrog style, and he strapped my
knees to the board. “Stay like
this. Hold on to the rope. See this?”
I looked down to see where he slipped the end of the strap under my left
foot. “When you get tired, just move
your foot. The strap will come free and
loose on your knees. Then, you can let
go of the rope and ride the board on your belly till we pick you up.” Sounded like the perfect idea, and it worked,
except that first time.
I took off fine, but when my
father slowed the boat to haul my brother out of the water, the board flattened
out and the nose dipped.
Flippity-dippity, y’all. I went
face-first into the water, and the buoyancy of the board popped it up so that I
did a seal. (A gymnastics stretch where
you lie on your stomach, push up with your hands, bend your legs at the knee,
and touch your toes to the top of your head…and yes, I was a gymnast until I
got too tall.) My knees did not come
free of the board, and it smacked me in the back of the head. I arched my back and dog-paddled, taking
gulps of air when I could.
Someone yelled my name, and
my brother came back in for me. I threw
up water as he swam me to the boat where I crumpled into a ball on the
Astroturf-clad decking and wept that my brother tried to kill me. I had a sore back for a week.
A summer later, I got back
on the kneeboard. My brother decided
that, if I rode too far back on the board, the nose would stay in the air when
my father slowed to get him. Every few
years or so, in a birthday card, he’ll write, “I love you, Sis, and I’m really
sorry that I almost killed you at the lake.”
I wish he’d apologize for convincing me to stick a radio adapter to my tongue
while it was plugged into the wall.
At age fourteen, I
accompanied my church youth group on a mission trip to Myrtle Beach. It was the first year my mother let me wear a
two-piece swimsuit, and I had this adorable number in black and white
For most of the teens on the
trip, it was the first time they had visited a hard sand beach. They were used to the sugar-white beaches of
I’d visited before, so I wasn’t wowed by the fact that people rode
bicycles or pushed wheeled carts full of frozen lemonade or Dippin’ Dots on the
beach. (Why the hell are those things so
good?) What does wow me about the
Atlantic are the remarkable contrasts in low versus high tide, wave crest
versus wave trough.
I spent the better part of
one afternoon, while in my awesome swimsuit, wave hopping with a group of about
ten girls. When I tired, I decided to
head ashore for a frozen lemonade. I
timed my exit, so that I could hop with the waves, but I miscalculated. One caught me in the side of the face,
ramming water into my ear and shoving me to the sea floor.
Hard sand, hard sand, nothing to dig into so I could pull
myself. Every time I tried to stand,
another wave knocked me back down, pinned me, sucked at my thighs, and dragged
me away from the shore. Try, try, try, I heard it in my
head. [That cute boy you like] hugged you yesterday. That’s worth fighting for, right? My cursing gene hadn’t blossomed yet, or
I would've been thinking, Don’t you
Then I thought, God, I’m going to drown out here. I’ve nearly drowned twice, and it’s going to
happen again. The black fingers of
unconsciousness crept into my vision, and then, I washed ashore. I had a wedgie from Hell and sand burns on my
knees, toes, and palms, but as I coughed and retched and crawled away from the
water, I thought I must be part cat.
No one saw me, and I didn’t
tell anyone. I just wrapped myself in my
towel and prayed and thanked God that the blood from my wicked abrasions hadn’t
Sweet sixteen and back at
the lake at a friend’s parents’ lakehouse for some debauchery. I wore my blue and white polka dot two-piece.
(I have a thing for polka-dots.)
My hair was long, down to the bottom of my shoulder blades, and A.C., the
boyfriend of a friend who christened me with the nickname Shelley, kept tugging on it
and then looking away innocently when I would turn to confront him.
Several of us floated on life
vests, and I threatened to burn A.C. with my lighter if he
didn’t stop pulling my hair. Then, he
shoved me off the life vest, sinking my drink.
“Damnit, A.C.,” I shouted and
swept my arm toward him so that I sent a wave of a splash into his open,
Before I could re-situate
myself on the vest, he grabbed me by the shoulders. I began to yell at him, but he shoved me
underwater – no air in my lungs and mouth open.
He put his feet on my shoulders and used all the power he could
generated with his six feet, six inches to jettison me down…deep, deep where
the water is still fffrrreeezing even in August.
Crawl up, I thought, remembering some lifeguard training about
paddling up to the surface. I could see
it, dim in the green water. I thought
about all the corpses at the bottom of the lake, and how they never ever found
anyone who drowned in it, and how it was the perfect place to dump bodies for
that very reason. So I crawled, but I
since I had no air, I didn’t make it far.
“Fuck, Shelley!” A.C. screamed as someone hauled me bodily out
of the water. More coughing, more
warfing (if I may borrow from Ren and Stimpy).
When Abe had jerked me up by
the arm, the water rolled my top down around my waist. Hooray!
Add embarrassment to the list.
“Somebody, give me a beer,” I croaked and slipped myself
back into my top.
No lights. Maybe I didn’t get close
enough to the barrier between life and death to see them, if they exist. I remember the water, the panic, the futility of fighting, and an absence of pain, until after the fact.
As a sophomore in college, I read Black
Water by Joyce Carol Oates, and I wrote a journal entry on those
experiences. I collected them together for the first time, and for the
first time, I connected with a dead girl. That made more of an impression
on me than any of the four near-drownings.